On February 17, 1925, at the age of 44, Monsignor Angelo Roncalli was sent into ecclesiastical exile for his outspoken discomfort with the growing power of Mussolini and the Fascist Right in Italy, at a time when the Vatican was attempting to work out a concordat or agreement with Mussolini. [The Concordat was completed in 1929.] Biographer Peter Hebblethwaite describes this era of Roncalli’s life as “Ten Hard Years in Bulgaria,” [pp. 55-69] though his next foreign assignments would be even more challenging. As you might imagine, there is an official record of Roncalli’s meeting with the Cardinal Vatican Secretary of State where the assignment was made. There is also Roncalli’s recollection given many years later, where he quotes the official’s advice: “I’m told the situation in Bulgaria is very confused. I can’t tell you in detail what is going on. But everyone seems to be fighting with everyone else, the Moslems with the Orthodox, the Greek Catholics with the Latins, and the Latins with each other. Can you go there and find out what is really happening?” [p. 55]
Before he left for Bulgaria Roncalli was summoned to meet Pope Pius XI, who at least softened the blow by appointing him an archbishop. Pius had been a diplomat in Poland before his election as pope, and he confided to Roncalli that it would help his mission to quarreling Bulgarian bishops a great deal if he was a bishop himself. [p. 56] It is a curious way for a future pope to rise to the episcopacy, but so it was. Roncalli was depressed with his assignment, and his journal reflects this. At the same time, one of his guiding beliefs was “the path to peace lie in obedience.” He was comforted, too, with the knowledge that his close friends in the hierarchy knew he had been dealt an unfair hand. On the day before he left Rome, Roncalli spent the afternoon with a close friend, Giovanni Montini, and together they formulated the pastoral possibilities of his assignment. Montini would be elected to the papacy in 1963, succeeding Roncalli, as Pope Paul VI.
Bulgaria was indeed in a bad way. It had chosen the wrong side in World War I and its political and economic status was in disarray. Terrorist attacks were common, and a particularly devastating explosion killed 100 and injured 1000 at the ancient church of Svata Nedela just prior to Roncalli’s arrival. The new apostolic legate sought permission from King Boris to visit the victims, but the synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox objected on the grounds that his visit meant “imperialism and proselytism.” There were only 62,000 Catholics in Bulgaria—divided between the Latin Rite and the Uniate Rite—and the delegate decided to visit as many of these churches as possible in an arduous circuit of some of the poorest regions of the country. He acquired a bit of the local language and brought an interpreter with him. Over time his outgoing affability won him the title of “Diado” or “good father” among the Catholic population.
Roncalli recommended to Pope Pius XI that the nation’s Catholics should have a single bishop, and his candidate was approved and ordained. Roncalli remained in the country, first to establish a national seminary for the training of Bulgarian candidates, and then—a more challenging task—to begin overtures of friendship and unity with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the official state religion. It was here, according to Hebblethwaite, that the future pope learned the principles of ecumenism, the first being that “one could not expect to begin a dialogue with condemnations. Friendliness in Christ was a starting point, along with a capacity to listen and learn.” [p. 60]
Amid this effort, a devastating earthquake wrought severe damage to the region where most Uniate Catholics lived. Roncalli went to the scene immediately and engaged in fundraising for the victims. But as his 25th anniversary of ordination approached, he feared that his stay in Bulgaria might extend indefinitely, and he became depressed. He quotes St. Francis de Sales, “I am like a bird singing in a thicket of thorns.” [p. 63] He had to confront the fact that, like so many men in his position, he did aspire to higher responsibility and recognition in the Church. It did not help that rumors circulated of his possible promotion to the See of Milan, though it is unlikely that Mussolini, now exercising greater influence in Church affairs, would have approved.
It did not make Roncalli’s life easier when King Boris, an Orthodox, married a Roman Catholic woman with a papal dispensation, and then proceeded with a second grand Orthodox wedding. Pius XI felt betrayed by the king and by his apostolic delegate. Because he was ordered to express Vatican dismay over the king’s behavior, Roncalli was banned from the court for a year.
Finally, after a decade in Bulgaria, Roncalli was promoted to apostolic delegate to Turkey, though upon his arrival he was forced to visit the police and would be under surveillance for all his years in Istanbul. Hebblethwaite summarizes his challenge: “How to be Vatican representative in an Islamic country that was busily rejecting Islam and all religion as retrograde.” [p 70] Most of the nation’s 35,000 Catholics lived in or around Istanbul—Latins and a wide range of Uniates. Roncalli again adopted a program of uniting those in communion with Rome, making overtures to the Orthodox, and establishing good relations with the Turkish government. The third would be most difficult—and personally dangerous--under the rule of Mustafa Kenal, who adopted the name “Ataturk” or “Father of the Turks.” His goal was a model secular state, and both Islamic and Christian citizens were banned from wearing religious attire. Roncalli wrote to a friend that the ban was a difficulty for priests and friars, but that he was hopeful to avoid the wave of executions of clergy taking place in Mexico at the time.
Ataturk did not go that far, but he did close all Catholic schools as well as the diocesan paper. Roncalli’s biographer observes that the apostolic delegate was well equipped from his Bulgarian days to resort to populist, face-to-face pastoral care, and education of his flock. He even introduced Turkish language prayer into the liturgy, something of a statement that Catholicism was planning to live and thrive in Turkey for a long time. But soon his stresses in Turkey would become multiplied by the onrushing ambitions of Hitler and Mussolini and the opening salvo of hostilities that would lead to World War II.
On October 2, 1935, Italy invaded Abyssinia, in Hebblethwaite’s words “a coldly calculated and long prepared move against the last sovereign state of Africa” [p. 73] The aging Pope Pius XI defended Italy’s actions, stating “the hopes, the demands, the needs of a great and good people should be recognized and satisfied.” The invasion was highly popular among most Italians, representing as it did Mussolini’s determination to restore Italy to world power status in the guise of bringing civilization to a backward African nation. From his perch in Istanbul Roncalli was able to speak his mind about the action: “Enough: let’s hope and pray the war will soon be over because it is, after all, a war.” [p. 73]
In 1939 Roncalli met for the first time with Franz von Papen, a German diplomat and himself a Catholic, beginning a long and complicated diplomatic and personal relationship. At first Roncalli regarded Papen as a Catholic aristocrat, though British and Vatican intelligence saw him in a darker light; when Papen was proposed as German Ambassador to the Vatican, the newly elected Pius XII turned down the nomination. [I should note here that the interworking’s between Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and the Vatican before and during World War II are highly complicated. Hebblethwaite describes them as they impacted Roncalli, but an interested reader is advised to pursue the subject further. I am uncomfortable recommending specific texts as the subject is quite heated. I will say that many historians agree that Pius XII was more fearful of Russian atheism and totalitarianism than of Nazi nationalism. However, it is a stretch to say that Pius was fully conscious of Nazi intentions atrocities at the beginning of the War. In this context, Roncalli’s role as Vatican diplomat in Turkey—a neutral power and buffer between Germany and Russia—takes on a greater importance in this time span.]
During the War of Britain in 1940, Papen—representing Hitler—presented the argument to Roncalli that Germany had no desire to destroy England or France, that the goal of the bombing was simply to impel England to take German sovereignty and interests more seriously. Roncalli was not an ambassador—he was the Vatican’s apostolic delegate to Turkey—and thus he had no standing to refute or negotiate what he was told. He was, basically, a courier for the Vatican, who reported Papen’s assertion dutifully, regardless of what he himself thought of Papen’s assertions. However, the Vatican’s man in Turkey is not without opinions.
Hebblethwaite provides an intriguing and captivating narrative of Roncalli’s thinking as the War progressed. For example, early in the conflict, evidently believing that Hitler would at least subjugate most of Europe, he offers this view to the Vatican: “Despite the various estimates that may be made of Hitler’s character...there are still so many open possibilities, and the future could be rich with surprises. One of them could be that after the war Catholicism would become the ‘formative principle’ of the new German social order, rather in the way Mussolini had wisely endowed Italy with the concordat  and social legislation inspired on some points by the great teaching of [Pope] Leo XIII [r. 1878-1903].” [p. 83] The author comments that Roncalli fully expected to have to live with Hitler’s new order.
In 1941 Roncalli writes that he fully expected England to be “liquidated” given the union of Germany and Russia, and that Turkey, in this new order, could be guaranteed its independence. But Papen had misled him, and shortly thereafter Germany turned its offensive surge against the Soviet Union. It did not help that the British ambassador did not take Roncalli seriously enough to confide in him something of the Western aims of the war, information that might have at least balanced what he was receiving from Papen.
At this juncture the Vatican ordered Roncalli to Greece to negotiate for full diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Greece. But wartime conditions in Greece were so severe that his mission there became a largely humanitarian one—including negotiations on prisoner exchanges as the War began to swing in the direction of the Allies with German defeats in Russia and North Africa. More famously, he became aware of the desperate plight of the Jews. Many years later, when Pope John XXIII’s beatification was under consideration, Papen—of all people—testified that Roncalli “helped 24,000 Jews with clothes, money, and documents.” [p. 90] Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful in getting Vatican participation in wider rescue operations when he transmitted a request for assistance.
Hebblethwaite argues compellingly that the Vatican refusal to assist Jews escape to neutral countries was “worse than any of Pius XII’s ‘silences.’” [p. 91] And even Roncalli, after Mussolini’s fall and subsequent Nazi occupation of Italy, expressed dismay when a convoy of Italian Jews was dispatched to Palestine. “I confess that this convoy of Jews to Palestine, aided specifically by the Holy See, looks like the reconstruction of the Hebrew Kingdom, and so arouses certain doubts in my mind….” [p. 93] Roncalli’s concern—strange as it may sound today—was the appearance of gathering a Jewish nation with the purpose of restoring the messianic dream. As the author puts it, Roncalli’s practice was better than his theology, for he continued to rescue individual Jews as he could, primarily by providing “immigration certificates.” A 1962 book claims that Roncalli gave baptismal certificates to Jews, but Hebblethwaite does not hold with the claim.
In 1944, deeply impacted by the spectacle of war, Roncalli delivered his Pentecostal sermon in Istanbul. Mindful that the end of the European phase of the War was in sight, he exhorted his mixed congregation that the Spirit was still alive in the world, and that the future could only be built in universal brotherhood bound together by the Father in heaven. However, Roncalli would not be undertaking his post-war mission of binding in Turkey. On December 6, 1944, he was notified by the Vatican Secretary of State that he had been promoted to the position of Nuncio to France, one of the highest offices in the Vatican diplomatic corps, to a country deeply divided by its wartime identity.
I have long believed that one of the best ways to learn history is through biographies, and this applies to Catholic Church history. For the past sixty years we Catholics have identified ourselves as “Vatican II” Catholics, having been influenced by the Council of 1962-1965. The number of books written about Vatican II—pro, con, and in between—is endless, but to grasp the full vision of the Council, it is necessary to know the mind of the man who called the Council—what shaped him, his life experiences, and the factors which led to his momentous announcement of 1959. I was fortunate enough to come across Peter Hebblethwaite’s outstanding biography of Pope John XXIII, John XXIII: Pope of the Century [1984, 1994]. Aside from its insights into a pivotal era of the Church, the work unconsciously provides a blueprint for the unpacking of “Synodality,”
Peter Hebblethwaite was a widely recognized Church journalist and author in the 1970’s and 1980’s, sometimes nicknamed a “Vaticanologist” because of his network of contacts and interests in the workings of the Church. It is true that he died [in 1994] before more written sources and documentations were released, but on the other hand he was able to interview many clerics, theologians, and others who lived during John’s brief pontifical reign [1958-1963] including some of the most famous participants in the Council.
The mythical account of Pope John XXIII’s life—and it is amazing how many people who should know better still propagate it—is the tale of a career Vatican diplomat of modest talent at best who was elected pope at the age of 76 to “keep the seat warm” for a younger and more competent candidate to be groomed after the 19-year reign of Pope Pius XII [1939-1958]. The popular tale continues that John called the Council at the behest of modern European theologians who then proceeded to hijack the proceedings to create a modernist church that went far beyond what John intended.
What gets overlooked in such mythmaking is one obvious counterpoint: a man who ascends to the papacy at 76 has a long curriculum vitae of responsibilities and assignments that form the thinking of a man over many years. To understand John XXIII, one must meet Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, born in 1881 to a family of sharecropper-farmers in the Diocese of Bergamo, Italy. Although the life was exhausting, Angelo found time to serve daily Mass and to observe the development of Catholic Action groups which worked for the improvement of the peasants’ and workman’s lot in Italian society. Pope Leo XIII was elected during Roncalli’s youth, the pope who would write the highly regarded encyclical Rerum Novarum,  the first encyclical on the subject of social justice.
Young Angelo would write years later that he could not remember a time when he did not want to become a priest. He entered the seminary at age ten and took considerable time to adjust to separation from his family and to the rigors of the studies, as he was the youngest in his class. He began a journal at age 14, which he maintained throughout his life and even through his papacy. It is an invaluable historical source for the study of Pope John today. We know, for example, that he established a rigorous spiritual rule for himself by his fourteenth year. We also know that in his teens he intuited—probably from his priest sponsors—that the Gospel and social justice were important constituents of priestly identity. This development took place against the backdrop of the papacy losing control of the sizeable Papal States to the new secular Italian national government.
As he later matured and began his ministry, Angelo came to believe that the loss of the papal states was ultimately a good thing for the Church, that by getting out of civil entanglements the Church could focus upon what he saw as its primary purpose, the spiritual saving of souls and what today we would call evangelization. Spreading the Gospel would be much unencumbered with statehood off the table, in his view. He was not the first person to think this way, and this was still a minority position; the papacy fought to maintain its influence in Italian civil life. As late as 1948 Pope Pius XII taught that Catholics could not vote for Communist or Socialist candidates in Italy’s civil election.
Angelo’s superior performance in the minor seminary and the sponsorship of respected churchmen brought him to Rome for his major priestly studies. He enjoyed the seminary and the study of theology; he was not brilliant, but he was dogged, and he showed aptitude for history and research, something to remember as his story unfolds. He developed a deep love for Latin and believed that the Church was best served by reading the writings of the saints in the Latin tongue. Even as pope he repeatedly read the reflections of Pope Gregory the Great [r. 590-604 A.D.] in Latin. [As pope, he issued Veterum Sapientia in February 1962, decreeing that all major seminary courses were to be taught in Latin. As it turned out, virtually no American professors could do this, and the decree died a quiet death.]
His seminary years endured a major interruption. He was drafted into the Italian army for a year—an interruption he hated—but he proved to be a particularly good soldier, particularly as a sharpshooter, and was raised to the rank of sergeant. It was his first encounter with the “locker room world” of men and sexuality. But he returned to the seminary with renewed zeal, completed his doctorate, and passed his ordination examination, conducted by Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII. After his ordination he returned to his home diocese of Bergamo, but he was not destined to stay there long.
Father Roncalli’s early years as a priest coincided with the crisis of Modernism. At the turn of the twentieth century Pope Pius X [r. 1903-1914] issued multiple condemnations of Modernism, an openness to current ideas which conflicted with strict interpretation of Church doctrine and discipline. See the Encyclopedia Britannica’s description of Modernism to understand what church life was like during Angelo Roncalli’s early priestly years.] Roncalli demonstrated a remarkable courage here—one which could have led to his excommunication, or more likely, to the end of a promising career. After one of Pope Pius’s broadest condemnations of Modernist trends in 1907, the young priest and Doctor of Theology delivered a public lecture at the Bergamo seminary in which he defended the study of history as a method of developing greater understanding of the Scripture and the development of the Church as institution. I suppose that nothing less could have been expected from a man who loved history.
However, like nearly all priests of his time, Roncalli took the new “Anti-modernist oath” as priests and seminarians would take as late as the 1960’s. Having talked to men ahead of me who took the oath, I get the impression that most did so as a general act of loyalty to the pope without endorsing its provisions. The biographer Hebblethwaite seems to imply that Roncalli in 1910 approached the oath in something of the same spirit. [p. 34] His biographer observes that “[F]rom the whole tragic episode Roncalli drew the conclusion that there were other and better ways of dealing with ‘error’ in the Church.” [p. 36]
When World War I broke out in 1914, and the following year Roncalli was drafted. The drafting of clerics [which never occurred in the United States; priests volunteered to serve as chaplains] is a good illustration of the continuing stress between the Church and the Italian State at this time. This second round of service proved to be highly influential upon the future pope; there is an entry in his journal—too long to cite here—that describes his powerful feelings of pity and affection for the young men whose confessions he heard for hours at a time and whom he accompanied at the hour of their deaths. In his journal he admits to crying like a child in his tent while at the same time reflecting upon war and the Church’s position in the struggles between states. [p.40] Years later, Roncalli was instrumental in the defusing of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
After the War Roncalli became the spiritual director of a seminary and slowly but surely a popular speaker. His wartime experience had deepened his love for his country and its future. He was a staunch supporter of lay action—the courage and sacrifice of his soldiers strengthened this conviction, that Catholic laity had rights to form the society in which they lived, including its pollical direction. His reputation on behalf of Catholic action eventually won him a position within the Roman Curia as national [Italian] director of Society for the Propagation of the Faith, an organization which raised awareness and funds for the foreign missions. A review of the literature about the Society in 1922 pictures a society in disarray and disagreement, and Roncalli’s appointment coincides with Pope Benedict XV’s demand for a restructuring.
Roncalli was unhappy with the appointment, and as is often the case, he found the situation as bad as, if not worse than, advertised. However, the position allowed him to travel the length of Italy meeting with the bishops in the name of a project close to the sitting pope. He also traveled widely in Europe to assist in coordinating the international efforts of the Society. [An annual collection for the Society is taken up yearly in all churches to this day.] Given his pessimism for the position and its problems, he was still successful in raising Italy’s annual collection more than 100%.
This success, however, would not help him with a grave new personal challenge, the rise of Mussolini and the radical right. Roncalli’s sympathies had for some years laid with Catholic Action and democratic reform, and he correctly perceived that Mussolini was inviting the Church down a road that could only bring it harm. Called upon in 1924 to deliver a eulogy for a bishop in his home diocese, Bergamo, he made an impassioned plea that the state not interfere in the ministry of the Church. It was a not-so-veiled address to Mussolini to cease his negotiations with the Vatican, which would end in the 1929 Italian Concordat. There would be no room for “Christian Democrats” in Mussolini’s Italy, and this label describes Roncalli’s politics as well as any.
On February 17, 1925, Angelo Roncalli was informed by the Vatican Secretary of State that he had been appointed apostolic visitor to Bulgaria. He would not return reside in Rome in an official capacity for 33 years.
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything